People of Memory and Movement
A sermon preached by the Rev. Sarah Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Easter, May 4, 2014
We are in the season of Easter until we arrive at the day of Pentecost on June 8th. When we arrive at Pentecost we will read together the story of Pentecost – when the Holy Spirit arrives in the room where they are gathered – and the disciples are anointed to go out and speak of God in languages they do not know to people they do not know. And the church is born. It is a story that’s actually included in today’s lectionary readings, placed next to the reading from John’s gospel with the disciples huddled fearfully in a room with locked doors. Today’s readings invite us to reflect on what is central to our Christian identity, they remind us that the Gospel is always about movement beyond locked doors, far beyond the small circles of connection that we draw. The good news is about encounter with the risen Christ and with each other in many languages and cultures.
This morning’s reading from the Gospel of John sets the scene with the disciples huddled in a room with the doors locked “for fear of the Jews.” Sections of John’s gospel like this one, with strong language spoken against “the Jews” have been misinterpreted, misused to defend and fuel Christian identity grounded in anti-Semitism, hatred of people of the Jewish faith.
How do we understand these references in John’s gospel? In his book “Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship,” Wes Howard-Brook writes that references to the “Jews” are more accurately translated as “Judeans”, people with geographic or political connections to Judea. Throughout the book of John, a strong line is drawn between Galileans and Judeans. Jesus spent most of his ministry in Galilee. His entry into the region of Judea and into the temple is very memorable. He overturned tables and threw out the money changers. Jesus lamented a religious system, with its headquarters in Judea that had tied itself to a corrupt economic system that made worship a burden to the poor. “The gospel is not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish but anti-Judean, where “Judean” is a symbol for those whose allegiance is to the “world” (p.43).[i] John’s gospel emphasizes to its hearers, now two generations removed from Jesus’ earthly ministry, that to be a part of the community of Christ, a new birth was required, and this new birth radically re-orients followers to the good of the whole community.
In this reading from John, Jesus enters into the room where the disciples are through locked doors, not once but twice. The first time, the doors were locked out of fear of the Judeans. Mary saw Jesus in the garden and told the others what she had seen but even after her report, the other disciples remained huddled in fear in a locked room. None of the disciples – not just Thomas – believed that Jesus was risen from the dead until they saw him. Jesus appears to them in that room and shows them his hands and his side. He breathes on them with the breath of the Spirit and sends them forth with the mission to forgive sins, to be love in the world. They see him, feel his breath, and believe…and Thomas misses out on that first encounter.
When Jesus returns to be in the presence of Thomas, the doors are once again locked. Perhaps because the disciples now feared the life-altering implications of carrying the gospel of Jesus’ love out into the world? Jesus again offers the signs of his hands, his side. Thomas, seeing Jesus, bursts out, “My Lord and my God!” In Jesus’ presence, Thomas is moved from doubt, brought into the mystery and hope of the resurrection. Jesus, present in that room, speaks not a disparagement but a blessing, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Blessed are the generations of believers who continue to tell the story, to be people who hold the sacred memory in our lives together as Christ’s followers.
Our identity is based in the memory of this story, the story of death and resurrection, of Jesus present in community, which we tell when we gather together at the holy supper. In this meal we remember that memory is not the simple recording of facts. “We do this in memory of…” And we know that to be true in our lives, don’t we? Remembering is not a passive thing. We remember a mother by cooking her one of a kind apple pie recipe. We remember a friend by donating to an art fund that continues her vision in this world. We remember the fragile state of this earth by committing to change our own practices that cause harm to the environment. We remember our Christian identity touching the bread of life, tasting the sweetness of the cup, looking at each other around the table and seeing who we are called to love in here and out in the world.
If we are people of memory we are also people of movement. The memory of the resurrection sends us out. Walter Wink writes, “The resurrection is not a fact to be believed, but an experience to be shared. It is not a datum of history, but divine transformative power overcoming the power of death. Resurrection is not a contract for a time-share apartment in heaven. It is the spirit of Jesus present in people who continue his struggle against domination in all its forms, here, now, on this good earth.”[ii] On the mission to bring peace and forgiveness out into this world, to walk with all who struggle against forces of oppression, we encounter Jesus again and again.
On Thursday nights we offer English as a Second Language classes here at White Plains Presbyterian Church in partnership with Hitchock Presbyterian. Class begins with a meal and childcare is provided, both of which have made attending class a bit easier for both students and volunteer teachers. We usually gather for class in the conference room. We average about 12 students, 8 volunteers, and 6 children, expanding and contracting as people’s work and home schedules change. And sometimes we migrate as a whole class when the church building schedule changes and the conference room is not available. A few weeks ago we had class in the lower fellowship hall, where Alianza Cristiana y Misionera, a Spanish-language congregation meets for worship a few times a week. The majority of students at ESL classes are participants in the Alianza congregation. We ate together and had class in the lower fellowship hall and, as usual, we all chipped in to clean up at the end of class, packing up leftovers for everyone to take home. As we cleaned up together at the end of class that night, one man, a member of Alianza who has never missed an ESL class took the lead in returning everything to its place, making sure that the lights were out, the doors shut, and everyone was safely up the stairs. We were in Alianza’s sacred space, the place in this building where participants in that congregation gather to remember God’s story and to be sent as disciples out into the world.
What is this place, where we are meeting? This is the question we will sing together in a moment. The hymn text offers an answer, “Only a house, the earth its floor. Walls and a roof, sheltering people, windows for light, an open door. Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here, and know our God is near.”[iii] As we look forward to celebrating the Founding Day of White Plains Presbyterian Church, we give thanks for this place because of the people who encounter one another here. On May 18th we turn over the soil for a new garden bed on the front lawn, a new sacred meeting place on these grounds for the congregations that share this building and for community members in White Plains. In the work of planting and weeding we’ll spend time sharing and hearing the diverse stories of our lives and we will be transformed by one another and God. For, “Wherever humans encounter one another deeply, they find the power that has been known variously as spirit, manna, God.”[iv]
In the account of Jesus meeting Thomas, it never does say that Thomas touched Jesus’ side or reached out to feel his hands. Today’s gospel reading is not a story about proof; it’s a story about the power of presence. It is about encountering Jesus in the midst of community. In the generations that follow, we remember and know this joy in the telling of the story and by encountering glimpses of God’s holy work in one another, in community. Let us move deeper into the presence of each other, sharing our lives, which in joy and in struggle, witness to the good news of new birth into a living hope.
[i] Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2003), p. 43.
[ii] Walter Wink, “Resonating with God’s Song,” Christian Century (Vol. 10, Mr 23-30, 1994), p. 309.
[iii] Huub Oosterhuis, “What is This Place,” (No. 404) in Glory to God (Louisville:Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2013).
[iv] Dan McKanan, Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), p. 277